Cult and Occult in Italian-American Culture The Persistence of a Religious Heritage

by Rudolph J. Vecoli

"Pagan! Heathen! Idolator!" These were among the epithets hurled at the Italian immigrants around the turn of the century. In addition to being viewed as potential mafiosi or anarchists, the sons of Italy had the further onus of being regarded as the bearers of anti-Christian beliefs and practices. The "Italian Problem" in its religious manifestation had been discovered by American churchmen, both Catholic and Protestant, well before 1900. In the following decades much energy, money, and ink were expended in efforts to find solutions to this "problem." What exactly was the nature of the Italian Problem? With few exceptions, American Protestants and Catholics agreed that the Italian immigrants were characterized by ignorance of Christian doctrine, image worship, and superstitious emotionalism. In short, they were not true Christians.(1)

Given the evangelical zeal of the American denominations, they quickly defined the Italians as a home mission field in need of their ministering care. Catholics and Protestants alike established churches, schools, and settlement houses in a competitive struggle to win the Italians for their respective faiths. What little has been written about the religious life of the Italians in America tends to deal with various facets of that struggle. There have been relatively few studies which delineate the actual religious beliefs and devotional practices of this ethnic group.(2) What in fact was the religious culture of Italian immigrants? And what has become of this religious heritage among the second and third generations?

To write the history of the inner life of a people, of its "sacred cosmos,"(3) is no easy thing, particularly if, like the Italian immigrants, the group has left few personal documents. The historian, however, can supplement the all-too-scarce letters, diaries, and autobiographies with the writings of anthropologists, folklorists, sociologists, and churchmen. Drawing upon such diverse sources, this chapter attempts to delineate the religious culture of the Italians and its encounter with American Catholicism.

Certainly among the millions of immigrants from Italy, one could find represented the entire spectrum of religious attitudes: from devout believer to militant atheist. In late nineteenth century Italy, positivist and materialist philosophies were gaining many converts among the educated classes, and increasingly among artisans and industrial workers. But the immigrants to the United States tended to be drawn for the most part from the peasantry of the more isolated regions of Southern Italy. Southern Italy, the Mezzogiorno, was as yet little affected by the ideological and technological changes which were transforming European society. The contadini (peasants) of the South, who comprised the majority of the immigrants to America, continued to live according to a centuries old way of life. Their folk religion was a syncretic melding of ancient pagan beliefs, magical practices, and Christian liturgy. Cult and occult had fused into a magical-religious world view which was deeply rooted in the psyche of this people. (4)

The life of the contadini was hard, mean, and cruel. The margin of survival was always paper thin; an illness, a drought, or a dead mule spelled disaster. Such calamities, however, did not occur at random; all things found their causes in the malevolent or benevolent workings of the spirit world. For the peasants, religion and magic merged into an elaborate ensemble of rituals, invocations, and charms by which they sought to invoke, placate, and thwart the supernatural. Within their "sacred cosmos," every moment and every event was infused with religious and magical significance.(5)

In their own eyes, the contadini, of course, were cristiani. Not to be a Christian was to be an infidel—a Turk. But the peasants' folk religion had little to do with the dogmas or polity of the Church. For such folk, intent upon daily survival, the Christian doctrines of sin, atonement, and salvation had little significance. For the Church as an institution and for its clergy, the peasants felt little affection or reverence. The Church they had known as an oppressive landlord allied with their historic exploiters, the signori (upper class, expecially (especially?) landlords). The priests, often relatives or paesani(fellow villagers), they regarded familiarly and even contemptuously. Celibate and dressed in women's garb, the priest was a sexual anomaly in a society which prized virility as the highest male attribute. Yet in the carrying out of their priestly functions, the clergy were respected and even feared. In the popular imagination, the priest was regarded as an archmagician with powers to exorcize (exorcise?) evil spirits. The Church played a vital role in the rites of passages, signified by baptism, marriage, and burial, and in the ministration of these sacraments the priest was indispensable. But to those forms of religious observance which were highly prized by American Catholics—regular attendance at Mass, confession, and Holy Communion—the contadini were less attentive. While women frequented Church for Mass, novenas, and special devotions, men rarely attended except for the feast of their patron saint and at Easter.(6)

Like all else in the peasant's life, his religion was spatially limited to his particular paese, his native village. This spirit of campanilismo (excessive village loyalty and parochialism) was expressed in the veneration of local sanctities; each paese had its churches and shrines dedicated to its patron saints and madonnas. In religious as in other matters, the contadini subscribed to the system of clientelismo.* (*Clientelismo means patronage of saints, more specifically a special devotion to a particular saint who will provide protection or favors.)  God, like the king, was a lofty, distant figure who would hardly have time to listen to the peasant's complaint about his dry cow, but the local saint, as a friend of God, could serve as an intermediary. The cult of the saints thus served as the focus for their formal devotional practices. The saints of Southern Italy were legion: San Rocco,

Santa Lucia, San Michele, San Gennaro, la Madonna del Carmine, and many others, some whose names "will not be found in any hagiology." Each saint had special powers to cure a particular disease, to render a certain favor, or to assure success in a trade or occupation; one prayed to San Biagio in case of a throat ache, to Santa Rita for women's ailments, or to San Francesco di Paolo if one were a fisherman. In their entreaties to the saints, the faithful were not simply making prayerful appeals; rather, they regarded these supernatural beings as personalities who could be enlisted in their cause by the performance of certain acts. As A. L. Maraspini has observed:

The saint is not the blessed soul in paradise of orthodox Catholicism, who may be venerated, and may, if he so pleases, intercede on behalf of his miserably sinful worshipper, but has been reduced almost to the level of a familiar demon who can be compelled by a form of words and actions to perform certain actions which the operator requires. For the peasant does not pray to the saint in the pious hope that the latter may take pity on him or that by any meritorious act he may deserve the saint's sympathy; he believes that the saying of the prayer, the lighting of the candle, and the offering of the ex-voto, are in themselves sufficient to enforce the saint's interest on his behalf.(7)

Should the saint fail his petitioner, he stood in danger of having his statue or image cast out or destroyed in retribution.

The religious life of the paese reached its climax with the celebration of the feast day of the patron saint. For the contadini, the festa (feast day) provided one of the few releases from the year round cycle of work and want. Putting aside austerity for the day, they indulged themselves in food, drink, and emotions. Dressed in their festive garb, they packed the church for the High Mass when the priest delivered the panegyric, declaiming the life and miracles of the saint. Gifts of money, candles, or grain were brought to the church in fulfillment of vows made during the year; sometimes the ex-voto took the form of wax reproductions of parts of the body which had been miraculously cured. In the afternoon, the statue of the saint was carried in procession through the streets, accompanied by the religious confraternities in colorful robes, a brass band, and the throng of the devotees. During the procession, emotions reached a high pitch among the chanting women with wailing, weeping, and trance like behavior. (8)

The festa was also a communal celebration in which all classes and conditions participated. It was a rare opportunity for feasting, dancing, and amusements; animal sales, vendors' booths, and games of chance made it also a country fair. The festa ended with a spectacular display of fireworks.

In these festivals, there was keen rivalry among villages and parishes in honoring their respective patrons. Local patriotism as well as religious fervor accounted for the expenditure of "extravagant sums in firecrackers, bands, and illuminations." The administration of the festa was in the hands of a lay committee, not of the Church, and contributions for the festival were solicited among the paese's emigrants in America. Their generous response resulted in the increased grandeur of the celebrations. Enclosing a contribution, Angelo di Angelantonio wrote to his sister: "We americani have sent this money in order to make a gift to the Very Holy Virgin of Angels because we must do honor for our paese."(9) In addition to the sense of vicarious participation, such gifts were made as offerings in return for blessings. The immigrants had no doubt that the Madonna could make miracles in America as well as in the paese.

As Ann Cornelisen commented, in the Mezzogiorno there was "a sense of magic in religion" and "a sense of religion in magic. " (10) In the peasants' folk religion, the supernatural practices extended far beyond the rites sanctioned by the Church. There were certain areas of the spirit world where the ministrations of the priests were to no avail. No evil befell the contadino which could not be attributed to the mal'occhio or jettatura (evil eye). An erring husband, a sick child, or a poor crop were all caused by malevolent spirits. To counter such curses (or perhaps to cast a spell of one's own), the peasants had an assortment of charms, amulets, potions, and incantations. Each daily act such as the baking of bread or the sowing of grain, had its associated magical formula to ward off evil. When the curse was strong, recourse was had to a mago or strega (magician or witch), who possessed arcane skills in making and unmaking magic spells.(11)

The folk religion of the contadini was no Sunday affair. Rather, it was a total system of beliefs and practices, a "sacred cosmos," in Thomas Luckmann's sense of the domain in which "both the ultimate significance of everyday life and the meaning of extraordinary experiences are located." Judged by the criteria of depth of conviction and emotional intensity, certainly the piety of the peasants were real. Their religious faith was not abstract, intellectual, or individual; rather, it was concrete, emotional, and communal.

Naturally the emigrants carried this religious culture with them as they went out into the world in search of work and bread. When they disembarked at Ellis Island, they wore the corno (the coral or gold charm) to protect them against the evil eye. "Together with the other aspects of southern folklore," Carla Bianco notes, "the magical-religious world view followed the immigrants to the new shores and stayed with them for several generations.  (12)

The spirit of campanilismo was the basic cohesive force which brought the paesani together in neighborhoods and small towns across America. As soon as a sufficient number of townsmen had assembled, they formed a society named after the patron saint and busied themselves with the celebration of the feast day. As the number of Italian immigrants increased, these societies proliferated by the score and then the hundreds. Statues of the saints and madonnas, exact replicas of those in the paese, were brought from Italy at considerable expense. The origins of many Italian churches are to be found in the rustic chapels which such societies established to provide a setting for the cult of the saints. Since this was often done without ecclesiastical permission, conflicts with the bishops followed over the question of ownership of the churches. As Italian parishes were established, a struggle was sure to ensue among various groups of paesani over the primacy of competing patron saints. Should the church be named after San Giuseppe or San Antonio? Which statue should be at the main altar? The dispute was sometimes resolved by naming the church after a neutral saint. One could determine the regional composition of an Italian parish by the saints and madonnas who were venerated there. At times there would be a half dozen images of different madonnas about the altar, each the object of devotion of a particular group of paesani. (13)

The cult of the patron saint was perhaps the strongest emotional bond, outside the family, which tied the immigrants to each other and to the distant paese. Not surprisingly then, the festa was the most vital and vivid expression of Italian immigrant culture in America. As Phyllis H. Williams observed, "Practically

every American town with an Italian community of any size and wealth observes one or more occasions of this nature, with the saints chosen that represent the largest homeland groups.''(14) Despite the sneers of cynics, the shock of Protestants, and the embarrassed protest of Catholics, the contadini insisted on reenacting these spectacles of medieval pageantry.

The paesani took great pains to replicate the festa as they had known it in the home town. Weeks of preparation created a sense of high excitement in the Italian neighborhoods, while a novena participated in by the women generated a mood of religious fervor. Dressed in "American" suits, adorned with sashes and other insignia, the sponsoring society attended Mass as a body (for some, the only day in the year they set foot in church). The priest delivered the panegyric invoking the protection of the saint upon the members of the society "from every imaginable evil." At the precise moment of the consecration of the host, torpedoes were exploded outside the church. Then the procession paraded the streets of "Little Italy," which were decked out with sidewalk altars, food stands, vendors of sacred and profane objects, and arches of electric lights (these replaced the torches of the paese). The statue, carried by those who had bid the highest for the privilege, was accompanied by the sodality with banners flying, a band, and hundreds (thousands in the larger cities) of devotees, many bearing large candles, barefoot, some on their knees. As the statue wended its way through the streets, the devout pinned money to its robes, virtually covering it with greenbacks. For the believers, these were acts of piety; for the skeptics, it was a scandalous display of superstition.(15)

In America as in Italy, the festa was a partriotic (patriotic?) manifestation which by its re-enactment affirmed a symbolic unity with the paese. Here, if anything, with the representation of many different town groups in one city, the competition in the magnificence of the observances was even keener. Also the greater prosperity permitted more extravagant displays. The mood of the festa as a day of recreation was captured by a contemporary description:

Everywhere whole families were out together, after the Italian custom, visiting, laughing, buying Italian sweetmeats, indulging in penny slices of watermelon, or applauding the familiar airs from Italian operas, played by the band stationed beside the church. Here too, a licensed gambling wheel drew a big crowd, but the best part of the celebration was the pleasure of fathers and mothers and children. Last of all rockets shot upward into the dark, more "bombe" were exploded and the lanterns were put out—the "festa" was over, the morrow at hand, when labor would begin once more. (16)

The basis of the cult of the saints among the immigrants was the belief in the efficacy of their miraculous powers in the New World as in the Old. Long before jet aircraft, the paesani believed that in a matter of hours, the patron saint could respond to the appeal from America. As Rosa Casettari put it: “In the old time was more miracle than now, but I see lots of miracles in Chicago too. The Madonna and the saint, they all the time make miracle to help me out.”(17) Women like Rosa expressed their piety in saying the rosary, attending novenas, and keeping the banks of candles before the statues ablaze. Reporting on his tour of Italian parishes in 1924, Monsignor Amleto G. Cicognani commented that thanks to the Italian immigrants the practice of lighting candles had become widespread in all America. In the Italian churches the sale of candles was a major source of revenue, "almost every church, no matter how small, collects from four to ten thousand dollars a year, and even more." Within the Italian immigrant home, a minature (miniature?)shrine with images, statues, and crosses, lit by a flickering votive lamp, provided yet another focus for daily devotions. (18)

Although women were more conspicuous in their piety, Italian men were also among the petitioners of the saints. Among the miraculous cures and graces obtained through the intercession of Santa Maria Maddalena De-Pazzi in Philadelphia, which the Reverend Antonio Isoleri reported, were not a few involving men. The following is somewhat unusual:

Alfonso G. ——, about 45 years old, had been imprisoned on a very serious charge, and was then acquitted. After having been set free, he was fired at five times, but escaped unhurt. On the 29th of May, 1898 at 9 o'clock Mass, barefooted, on his knees, with his tongue on the floor, he dragged himself up from the main church door to the sanctury (sanctuary?)railing, in fulfillment of a vow for deliverance, acquittal, and escape, through the intercession of S. Mary Magdalen, who, he said, appeared to him in the prison the night after he made the vow . . . and bowed to him, as if to say, "Thy request is granted.” (19)

This form of penance, lingua strascinuni (dragging tongue), was also practiced in Italy. (20) Other vows made in return for graces

received, reported by Isoleri, included walking barefoot in the saint's procession, having Masses said in honor of the saint, and especially gifts of gold rings to the saint. Along with the cult of the saints, the immigrants brought with them their occult beliefs and practices. As Charlotte Gower Chapman discovered in Milocca, "Emigration does not free one from the power of witches. The men who have been in America bring back tales of their activities there.” (21) If saints could make the trans-Atlantic crossing during the night, so could evil spirits. In Roseto, Pennsylvania, Carla Bianco was told of the woman from the Abruzzi who came to America as a ghost to see if her husband was sleeping with another woman. An old woman whose eldest son had married against her will sent a curse from Calabria to Chicago which caused his first-born to wither and die. Precautions then had to be taken against the evil eye; amulets were worn, rituals performed, and incantations chanted to fend off the power of witches. Meanwhile, in the Italian settlements, the mago and strega practiced their magic arts in behalf of the lovelorn, the vengeful, and the grief-stricken. As Alice Hamilton, who knew the Italian colony of Chicago intimately, observed: "Without the help of these mysterious and powerful magicians they believe that they would be defenseless before terrors that the police and the doctor and even the priest cannot cope with."(22)

To the outsider such beliefs appeared either ridiculous or sinister, but the contadino's folk religion sustained them in difficult and even tragic circumstances. Confronted by strange and intractable situations in this new land, they clung all the more to their "tried and true ways of coping with the Great Unknown." The shared world view also reinforced the contadini's sense of community. Each life crisis was faced with the support and participation of relatives and paesani. Funerals, for example, were communal experiences. Family and friends came from afar to share in the grief and to assuage it with food, drink, and talk. The ritualized outpouring of sorrow, the funeral laments, the tearing of hair, and the embracing and kissing of the corpse served as a catharsis. Traditional practices designed to pacify the soul of the deceased, such as the placing of objects in the casket, were followed. Prescribed forms and periods of mourning were observed. The religious culture of the immigrants, in short, strengthened their sense of identity and community and con

firmed their human personality in the face of an existence which often appeared to deny their humanity. (23)

For the practice of their religion, the Italian immigrants were subjected to a torrent of insults and abuse. Denounced as benighted heathens, they were besieged by their self-appointed saviors, who offered to them the one true gospel of Christian (or Catholic) Americanization. The immigrants had come in quest of a better living; they submitted to untold hardships to achieve this end. If they wished to celebrate their feste, of what concern should this have been to anyone else? But in the evangelical climate of turn-of-the-century America, the spiritual state of the Italian suddenly became everybody's business. The Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations were engaged in a titanic struggle for dominance in America's cities, and the souls of the Italians became the chief bone of contention. (24)

American Protestants viewed the Italians as a priest-ridden people denied the true light of the Word of God and thus doomed to spiritual death. Divine providence had brought at least some of them to America so that they might be saved. To the middle-class Protestant with his confusion of social respectability, personal hygiene, and holiness, the poor, dirty Italians were surely under the power of Satan. Various denominations took up this challenge and expended large sums of money for ministers, Sunday schools, and settlement houses for the Italians. Several decades of such sustained effort yielded a mere handful of converts. The Protestant crusade to evangelize the Italians had failed. (25)

While the Protestant reaction was predictable, one might have expected a more sympathetic response from the Catholic Church. The bigotry of the American Catholics, however, equaled if it did not surpass that of the Protestants. No doubt the Italians failed to measure up to the norms of American—that is, Irish—Catholicism. The American Catholic was above all supposed to be respectful and obedient toward the clergy, faithful in attendance at Mass and in partaking of the sacraments, and generous toward the Church. Judged by such criteria, the Italian was no Catholic at all. Rather, as certain Irish priests declared, his religion was all emotionalism and external display. The feste of the Italians particularly scandalized the Irish Catholics. Strenuous efforts were made by the bishops in various dioceses to suppress the

street processions, but to no avail. If denied the use of the church and the offices of the priest, the society would erect an altar on a vacant lot and hire a Protestant minister or defrocked priest to deliver the homily. Yet the threat of Protestant proselytizing and schism forced the Church to moderate its opposition to the peculiar piety of the Southern Italians. (26)

Viewing this clash of cultural traditions, some believed that ethnic parishes and Italian priests were essential to counteract the alienation of the immigrants from the Church in America. One of the most eloquent champions of the Italians, the Reverend Aurelio Palmieri, indicted the American Church for its lack of tolerance of the distinctive religio-cultural traditions of the contadini. Citing cases of flagrant bigotry on the part of Irish pastors, Palmieri called for the provision of Italian priests, who would understand and respect the religious sensibility of the Southern Italians. (27) With time, a considerable number of Italian national parishes were established in the major areas of immigrant settlement. Silvano Tomasi has argued that the ethnic parish by accepting the religious folklore of the immigrants served as an agent of group solidarity and unification of the Italians. He depicts the Italian priests as mediators between the established ecclesiastical structures and the peasant faith of the immigrants. Yet as Tomasi himself recognizes, the relationships between the Italian pastor and his flock were not always harmonious. The Italian priest was in the unenviable position of seeking to mediate between two very different worlds "with the risk," as Tomasi puts it, "of being shot by paesani or of being excommunicated by the Bishops." (28) Most of the Italian priests, moreover, came from the northern regions of the peninsula and found the mentality of the Southern Italians completely alien. A young priest from Tuscany assigned to a Sicilian parish in Chicago exclaimed: "Can these people be Italians?" The Reverend Giacomo Gambera, a missionary from Brescia, complained to his superior about his Southern Italian parishioners, declaring that the cult of the saints seemed to him "a pagan survival with only a change of idols." (29)

One of the recurring causes of conflict between Italian priests and parishioners was the disposition of the proceeds of the feste. As in Italy, the festival was sponsored by a lay committee which

made the preparations, hired the church and the priest, and received the gifts of the faithful—presumably to cover the expenses of the festa. But in America, it was said such committees were often controlled by unsavory characters who pocketed the profits. When the priests sought to gain control of the feste and of the contributions, they were subjected to threats, physical assaults, and even attempts on their lives. Was the issue one of the priests seeking to reclaim the feste for the Church from racketeers who were trafficking in sacred goods? Or was the issue one of institutional versus community control of a traditional religious celebration? (30)

Surely the emergence of a new generation of Italian-American priests would bridge the chasm between the religious traditions of the paese and the norms of American Catholicism. But vocations were relatively few among the second generation, and those who entered the priesthood were for the most part schooled at diocesan seminaries. Here they underwent a process of assimilation to the dominant Catholic model from which they usually emerged enthusiastic Americanizers. The Reverend John V. Tolino, for many years pastor of the Church of the Annunciation in Philadelphia, may serve as the archetype of the Italian-American priest. Philadelphia-born of parents from Avellino (in Southern Italy), Tolino was educated at the diocesan seminary. A dedicated priest and efficient administrator, Tolino believed that "the burden of assimilating into full American life the aliens who come to our shores . . . is . . . the work of the Church in America." He enthusiastically implemented Dennis Cardinal Dougherty's program to achieve this end among the Italians in Philadelphia. Tolino advocated religious instruction particularly through the parochial schools as the principal means of bringing the second generation into the mainstream of American Catholic life. (31)

Tolino regarded the Italian emphasis on the cult of the saints as "dangerously bordering on superstition." In his own parish, he denied recognition to the societies devoted to local saints and prohibited the traditional feste. On occasion Tolino intercepted the processions and preached his denunciation in the streets. The response of the Italians was to accuse Tolino of being an Irishman with an assumed Italian name. Although Tolino may have been a more zealous reformer than most, other Italian-American priests of his generation seem to have shared his assimilationist ideology. (32)

The American Church was overwhelmingly hostile to the folk Catholicism of the Italian immigrants, so much is clear. What then became of the religious culture of the contadini? What has survived the unrelenting onslaught upon their "sacred cosmos"? Is there any such thing as an Italian-American Catholicism today?

The findings of recent studies of the religious behavior of Italian-Americans are inconclusive and at times contradictory. One school of thought has argued that the Italians have become increasingly like the Irish Catholics. This "Hibernization thesis" was first advanced by Will Herberg as a corollary of his "triple melting pot" conception of American society; the Italians and other Catholic ethnics were being assimilated into the Catholic "pot," which had a predominantly Irish flavor. Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan took up this theme in Beyond the Melting Pot, concluding that as the Italians attained middle-class status their religious behavior tended to conform to the disciplined regularity of Irish patterns. On a theoretical level, Francis X. Femminella hypothesized that a significant segment of the Italians had in fact "internalized" Irish-American religious values. But he also suggested that many Italians had "withdrawn" from the hostility of the Irish Church, not rejecting Catholicism, but refusing to assimilate the Irish Catholic norms. From this response of indifference Femminella conjectures the possibility of "a positive Italian influence on American Catholicism." (33)

A more substantial study based on survey data was conducted by Nicholas John Russo of the religious acculturation of Italians in New York City. (34) Russo concludes rather cheerfully that in religious practices and attitudes the longer the Italians are in America the more they tend to be like Irish Catholics. However, his own data are contradictory on this very point. In terms of certain religious practices, the second- and even more the third generation Italians do seem to be approaching the Irish Catholic norm (for instance, supporting the Church financially, sending children to Catholic schools). They also seem to be moving away from Italian religious customs (for instance, honoring the patron saints, lighting candles, and praying more to the Virgin and saints

than to God). However, on the sacramental index, attendance at Mass, reception of Holy Communion, and confession, the significant discrepancy between Irish and Italian behavior is not only maintained in the second and third generations, but even increases. From the Russo study, one could conclude that if the distinctive qualities of Italian Catholicism are being washed out in the second and third generations, still the Italian-Americans are not moving toward the Irish Catholic model. If anything, the data suggest that their behavior is best described by Femminella's concept of "indifference."

A more recent study of ethnic diversity in American Catholicism, also based on survey data, tends to confirm the continuity of the pattern of indifference with respect to formal religious practices on the part of Italian-Americans of all generations. Using Mass attendance, Communion reception, and parochial school support as indices of religious involvement, Harold Abramson concluded that "generation itself has no influence on Italian religious behavior; indifferent levels of activity persist." On all of these measures, the Italians tended to rank at the bottom of the scale along with the "Spanish-speaking" as compared to other Catholic ethnic groups. To the question: "Have Italian Catholics become Irish?" Abramson's answer was no, with the possible exception of the minority who marry outside the ethnic group (35)

How much of the folk religion of their ancestors have the Italian Americans retained in their spiritual life? Has the cult of the saints, for example, been entirely eradicated by the strenuous efforts to secure uniformity of worship in the Church? As mentioned above, Russo's study suggests a waning of traditional devotional practices; for example, while 57.8 percent of first generation respondents reported praying more to the Virgin and the saints than to God, only 29 percent of the second and 22.6 percent of the third admitted doing so. In his recent work, L'America degli Italiani, the Reverend Alberto Giovannetti commented that the removal of the statues of patron saints from the churches, those statues brought with such love and sacrifice from Italy,

indicated that the grandchildren of the immigrants had lost the traditional piety of their forefathers. (36) However, having visited Italian churches in various parts of the country during the

past year, I can attest to the fact that the statues are there, removed from the main altar perhaps, but there—San Rocco, Santa Lucia, la Madonna del Carmine, and others, with banks of candles burning before them. Efforts to remove the statues from certain churches have sparked protests:

When the Irish pastor decided to renovate the sanctuary according to the modern liturgy of the Roman Catholic faith, part of that change meant eliminating the devotional candles and statues that Italo-Americans held dear to them. When the priest found out that some of the influential and wealthy Italians would leave the parish, he very quickly dropped the idea. (37)

The sacristan of a large Italian church on the West Coast told me that if the statues were removed, the church would have to be closed. He also volunteered the information that the parish took in more money from the sale of candles than from collections at Masses. As in older times, the devotion to the saints is privately conducted in the home as well. One can find in luxurious suburban ranch houses, as well as modest city apartments, a shrine with images and statues of the Madonna and saints.

The most dramatic manifestation of the continuing vitality of the cult of the saints is the celebration of the feste, which in fact appear to have taken on a new lease on life in recent years. As the multiple identities of the hundreds of groups of paesani have merged into a general Italian-American identity, so too the devotions to the multitude of local patrons have merged into the cult of a few favored saints and madonnas. Dispersed residence and the automobile make possible the gathering of thousands for the popular feste of la Madonna del Carmine in Melrose Park, Illinois, and in Hammonton, New Jersey, and of San Gennaro in Greenwich Village. In cities around the country many of the paesari societies still sponsor the feast of their patron; in 1976, the Riciglianesi of Chicago, for example, observed the festa of Santa Maria Incoronata for the eighty-first consecutive year. These celebrations retain much of the traditional character with Masses in honor of the patron, street processions, bands, barefoot women carrying candles, and fireworks. (38) But what is left of the original piety? Aside from the social aspects of the feste (always important), what remains of the faith in the miraculous power of the saints and madonnas?

And what of the occult which was such an integral part of the immigrants' folk religion? With the current revival of interest in witchcraft and demonology, American culture appears to be catching up with the contadini of a century ago. Those Italian Americans who in the rush to assimilate rejected the wisdom of their grandmothers are out of phase again. Yet the knowledge and practice of magic have not disappeared among the second and third generations. In her study of Roseto, Pennsylvania, Bianco found that "beneath the evident adjustment to certain aspects of American life, a whole world of traditional values, folk beliefs, and fantasies persists, in some ways as rich as that the immigrants left behind them in the Old Country." (39) A few years ago, Elizabeth Mathias discovered that South Philadelphia's Italians continued to follow many folk religious practices, particularly relating to sickness and death, while they derided these beliefs as superstitions. The belief in the evil eye remains common even among the third generation; the corno (horn of gold or coral) is still worn often along with a religious medal under the shirt, even by educated professional men. (40) Incantations are used to cure headaches and to solve other problems. Bianco's report of the cure of the evil eye by recitation of the magic formula over the telephone has been confirmed by other informants. In the Italian neighborhoods, one can still find practioners of the magic arts. Rene Cremona of Cleveland was having a string of bad luck with his business. On the advice of his neighbors, he consulted "a woman with the blessing" to get rid of the mal'occhio. The maga, Lena DeCapua, second vice president of the Ohio State Catholic War Veterans Ladies Auxillary, had learned to cast out spells from her grandmother. Mrs. DeCapua said that she received several calls a week from people requesting help. Cremona said: "Scientifically I don't understand it. But I'm taking it seriously because I see how seriously so many other people around here take it.” (41) Four decades ago, Phyllis Williams cautioned against "the popular idea . . . that superstition can swiftly be eradicated by a joint program of Americanization and education. Such deep-seated customs, if swept aside at all, are dissipated

gradually "(42) How widespread are such survivals of both cult and occult in Italian-American Catholicism? The evidence of survivals cited is admittedly impressionistic and fragmentary. Contrary evidence exists as well. Certainly, as Russo's data suggest, traditional devotional practices are being observed less frequently among second and successive generations. What is more significant is Bianco's observation that the communal context within which the folk religion survived and was transmitted is itself disappearing. Increasingly life is becoming more a private affair and less a shared experience. This trend is discernable in the changing Italian-American funeral practices. What had been a set of rituals for dealing with death, including the custom of night wakes and funeral lamentations, has been largely discarded. As Mathias writes: "The padded luxury of the funeral parlor has become the scene for the drama of the last hours with the body of the deceased, and the funeral director has taken over the duties which had once been performed in the peasant culture by the family alone."(43) Decorum and restraint have replaced the weeping and wailing of yesteryear. Here indeed the Italians appear to be approaching the Irish Catholic model. Russo reported that while 68.4 percent of the first-generation Italians admitted reacting emotionally at funerals, only 59 percent of the second generation, and 37.3 percent of the third generation did so (the Irish scored 31.5 percent). Other traditional practices have been prescribed by the Church. The use of bands at funerals and photographs on the tombstones were recently, for example, banned. According to the undertakers, the reason for such changes was " uniformity, we're striving for uniformity." (44)

The study of the fate of Italian folk religion provides an illuminating perspective on the history of the Catholic Church in America. In this light, the Church emerges as one of the major agencies of "Americanization," pursuing the objective of total, if gradual, assimilation. Early in this century the American hierarchy appears to have espoused the managerial ideology of seeking optimum institutional efficiency through the standardization of the religious behavior of all Catholics. One wonders whether the prelates were familiar with Frederick Winslow Taylor's ideas of scientific management; certainly they reflected the spirit of his thought. Just as in the factories the bodies of the Italian workers were subjected to a discipline alien to their ethnic character, so the Church sought to impose upon their spirits the model of the "good American Catholic." Ironically by allying itself with the forces of rationalization and bureaucratization, the Church facilitated the process of secularization which has eroded so deeply modern man's capacity for religious faith. The Italian immigrants brought with them an ancient religious culture, a Mediterranean sensibility pervaded by mysticism and passion. The American Church rejected this gift, to its and their great loss.


1. For a full discussion of the controversy regarding the "Italian Problem," see the author's''Prelates and Peasants: Italian Immigrants and the Catholic Church," Journal of Social History, 2 (Spring 1969), 217-268.

2. Until recently American Catholic historiography has paid little attention to the religious experience of the laity. Its traditional focus had been upon the clergy and the institutional Church. The popular piety of various Catholic ethnic groups is only now beginning to be studied. A recent example of this kind of "history from the inside out" is Jay P. Dolan, The Immigrant Church: New York's Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865 (Baltimore, 1975). Studies which deal with the religious behavior of Italian immigrants are: Harold J. Abramson, Ethnic Diversity in Catholic America (New York, 1973); Silvano M. Tomasi, Piety and Power: The Rise of Italian Parishes in the New York Metropolitan Area (Staten Island, N.Y., 1975); and Richard A. Varbero, "Philadelphia's South Italians and the Irish Church: A History of Cultural Conflict," in The Religious Experience of Italian Americans, ed. Silvano M. Tomasi, Proceedings of the American Italian Historical Association, Sixth Annual Conf., 1973, pp. 33 52.

3. The term is Thomas Luckmann's, who defines it as the domain of reality where "both the ultimate significance of everyday life and the meaning of extraordinary experiences are located." The Invisible Religion (New York, 1967), p. 58.

4. These generalizations are not meant to imply that Southern Italy was culturally homogeneous. Regional and local variations in religious beliefs and practices were common. Yet ethnographic and historical studies suggest that in the large the Southern Italian peasants did have a common world view. It should also be noted that many elements of this world view were shared by the agricultural populations of Central and Northern Italy. For a review of the Italian literature on the religious life of the South see Lucilla Rami, "Religiosita e Magia nel Sud," Sociologia; Rivista di Studi Sociali (Rome), 6 (September 1972), 95-145. Also

useful in this respect is La Religiosita Meridionale, Selezone CSER 6-7, (Rome, June-July 1972). Among a growing number of studies, the most important are Ernesto de Martino, Sud e magia (Milan, 1966) and Gabriele De Rosa, Vescovi, popolo e magia nel Sud (Naples, 1971).

5. An older but basic work is Phyllis H. Williams, South Italian Folkways in Europe and America (New Haven, 1938); see particularly pp. 135-139. The most vivid description of the peasant mentality is still to be found in Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli (New York, 1947).

6. The folk religion of the contadini can be studied through the many anthropological reports on villages of Southern Italy; among the most useful of these are: Charlotte Gower Chapman, Milocca a Sicilian Village (Cambridge, Mass., 1971); Ann Cornelisen, Torregreca. Life, Death, Miracles (New York, 1970); A. L. Maraspini, The Study of an Italian Village (Paris, 1968). Since these studies were conducted following the period of mass immigration to the United States, the persistence of traditional religious patterns is all the more striking. For a review of the anthropological literature see Leonard W. Moss and Eugene Cohen, "Where are we now: an inventory of recent research," The Stephen C. Cappannari Memorial Symposium; New Directions in Anthropological Research in Italy (mimeographed, 1974).

7. Maraspini, italian Village, pp. 226-227; on the cult of the saints, see also Williams, South Italian Folkways, pp. 135-139; La Religiosita eridionale, pp. 18-20.

8. For an excellent description of a festa see Norman Douglas, Old Calabria (New York, n.d.), pp. 201-212; also Chapman, Milocca a Sicilian Village, pp. 158-180;Levi,Christ Stopped at Eboli, pp. 117-120.

9. George R. Gilkey, "Italian Emigrant Letters. The Teramesi Write Home from America," trans. from Filippo Lussana, Lettere di illetterati (Bolagna, 1913) [unpub. MS in Immigration History Research Center, University of Minn.]. The increased expenditures the feste made possible by immigrants' gifts has also been noted by Prof. William A. Douglass in his study of Agnone, Molise. Private communication, Oct. 14, 1975.

10. Cornelisen, Torregreca, p. 256.

11. Leonard , Moss and Stephen C. Cappannari, "Folklore and Medicine in an Italian Village," Journal of American Folklore, 73 (April 1960), 85-102; Chapman, Milocca a Sicilian Village, pp. 196-207; Williams, South Italian Folkways, pp. 141-158; Cornelisen, Torregreca, pp. 243-263.

12. Carla Bianco, The Two Rosetos (Bloomington, 1974), p. 85; Jerre Mangione, Mount Allegro (New York, 1963), p. 105.

13. Noting this phenomenon, Tomasi maintained that it was the function of the Italian ethnic church to incorporate and fuse "into one community the fragmented Italian immigrants of the same American neighborhood.'' By bringing the village cults of the saints together in the same church, the ethnic parish "brought about an internal process of universalization." Piety and Power, pp. 97, 124-125, 168. See also Vecoli, "Prelates and Peasants," p. 231.

14. Williams, South Italian Folkways, p. 149.

15. The feste were described in detail in the Italian-American press. During the summer months, almost every issue carried accounts of one or more feste. L'ltalia (Chicago), Aug. 24, 1901. Tomasi cites expressions of opposition to the feste in Piety and Power, pp. 123-125. An anticlerical view of the f este was presented by Olindo Marzulli, Gl'ltaliani di Essex (Newark, N.J., 1911), pp. 29-30: "The faithful element among the immigrants has brought here its patron saints and with them all the hometown forms of the cult. Every village of Southern Italy has here a societa operaia which celebrates its patron. And when the festa cannot be made in America, money is collected so that it can be celebrated in the village, since the pastor incites the faithful to turn to their relatives in America so that they will not forget to honor with their money the old saint and the young madonna from whom they have al ways received the grace of a holy protection. And the contadini, who have not yet been able to pay off their own debts, hurry to send the fruits of their labor so that they can be converted into smoke and trinkets to offer to the saint. Here there is an active contest among the different societies, each of which seeks to overshadow the others in magnificence of the celebration. The solemn choreography of the processions of our villages is exactly reproduced, except for the greater effort due to the greater prosperity. There is a saint who, when he is carried in the procession, is literally covered with paper money. Even towards the saints the sympathies of our people run from indifference to fanaticism. And there is no reasoning which is able to convince them of the folly of these external forms of the cult which are ridiculed even by American Catholics. In fact these celebrations serve only one purpose: that of causing our people to be considered very boisterous and more enamored of the externals of the faith than of the faith itself. Nor is there hope that these religious processions will end as long as the old generations are alive. "

16. "Celebrating a Feast Day," By Archer Road (Chicago), 3 (Sept. 1909).

17. Marie Hall Ets, Rosa, the Life of an Italian Immigrant (Minneapolis, 1970), p. 242.

18. Monsignor Amleto G. Cicognani, "Visita Apostolica agli Scalab- riniani degli Stati Uniti d'America (settembre-ottobre 1924)" in "Stati Uniti e Canada Ovest Provincia San Giovanni Battista Visite Can

oniche," Archivio Generale, Pia Societa dei Missionari di S. Carlo, Rome. On the home shrines, see Bianco, Rosetos, pp. 87-88.

19. Antonio Isoleri, "Special Graces and Favors attesting the Devotion to St. M. M. De-Pazzi in Philadelphia," Souvenir and Bouquet ossia Ricordo della Solenne Consecrazione della Chiesa Nuova di S. Maria Maddalena De-Pazzi (Philadelphia, 1911), pp. 76 84. Father Isoleri noted: "Here we relate a few of the many occurrences of what may be regarded as miraculous cures and graces, obtained through the intercession of the Saint; though, mindful of the decree of His Holiness Pope Urban VIII and of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, we claim nothing more for them than a purely human and historical authority."

20. Chapman reports this practice: Milocca a Sicilian Village, p. 160.

21. Ibid., pp. 203-204.

22. Bianco, Rosetos, p. 92; Alice Hamilton, "Witchcraft in West Polk Street," American Mercury, 10 (Jan. 1927), 71. See also Anna Zaloha, "A Study of the Persistence of Italian Customs among 143 Families of Italian Descent" (unpub. master's thesis, Northwestern University, 1937).

23. Williams, South Italian Folkways, p. 159; Zaloha, "Italian Customs," pp. 155, 168-171. On Italian-American funeral practices see Elizabeth Mathias, "The Italian-American Funeral: Persistence through Change," Western Folklore, 33 (1974), 35-50. The author observes: "One of the most notable features of the funeral of the South Philadelphia Italian-American community is the persistence of a South Italian village funeral pattern." A personal reminiscence of Italian American wakes is Rose Grieco. "Those Who Mourn," The Commonweal, 57 (March 27, 1953), 628-630.

24. Richard M. Linkh, American Catholicism and European Immigrants (1900-1924) (Staten Island, N.Y., 1975), which describes the attitudes and policies of the Church with respect to the Italians and other newcomers, stresses its relative ineffectiveness as an agency of Americanization. Linkh comments, however, (p. 190) that "when Catholics did undertake immigrant care on even a small scale, they seemed to be motivated not primarily by Christian charity, but more often than not by the discomforting thought that Protestants were winning the race for souls and making inroads in the traditionally Catholic population."

25. On Protestant efforts to proselytize among the Italians see Theodore Abel, Protestant Home Missions to Catholic Immigrants (New York, 1933); Tomasi, Piety and Power, pp. 47-50, 153-159; Vecoli, "Prelates and Peasants," 267-268; Angelo Olivieri, "Protestantism and Italian Immigration in Boston in late 19th century: The Mission of G. Conte," in Tomasi, ed., The Religious Experience of Italian Americans, pp.73-103.

26. Tomasi, Piety and Power, pp. 44-47, 143-159; Vecoli, "Prelates and Peasants," pp. 243-248. During an extended polemic in America, one who signed himself "An Old Pastor" voiced his opinion of the Italians as follows: "Their religion, what there is of it, is exterior. Once I entered a big Italian church, in a big city, and while there many devotees came in to visit, as I first imagined, the Most Blessed Sacrament, but to my surprise and, will I say my disgust, their devotion consisted in lighting candles, prostrating themselves before statues, going from shrine to shrine, from side altar to side altar, sidetracking altogether the main altar wherein reposed the Saviorofmen."America, 12 (Dec. 19, 1914), 244.

27. Aurelio Palmieri, 11 grave problema religioso italiano negli Stati Uniti (Florence, 1921); see also the Reverend J. Zarrilli,A Prayerful Appeal to the American Hierarchy in behalf of the Italian Catholic Cause in the United States (Two Harbors, Minn., 1924).

28. Tomasi, Piety and Power, p. 143.

29. Giacomo Gambera, "Autobiografia, Alcuni Ricordi di Vita Missionaria negli Stati Uniti d'America," Religosi Defunti, Archivio Generale, Pia Societa dei Missionari di S. Carlo, Rome. Father Gambera received threats of death for his opposition to the promoters of the feste whom he suspected of crass motives.

30. Tomasi, Piety and Power, p. 141; Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug. 14, 1903; Edmund M. Dunne, Memoirs of "Zi Pre" (St. Louis, Mo., 1914), pp. 17-18. The Reverend Dunne, later Bishop of Peoria, was the first pastor of the Italian Guardian Angel Parish on Chicago's West Side.

31. Tolino expressed his views in a series of articles in The Ecclesiastical Review, "Solving the Italian Problem," 99 (Sept. 1938) 246256; "The Church in America and the Italian Problem," 100 (Jan. 1939), 22-32; "The Future of the Italian-American Problem," 101 (Sept. 1939), 22 1-232.

32. Varbero, "Philadelphia's South Italians and the Irish Church"; Christa Ressmeyer Klein, "Catholicism in Southern Italy and in the Philadelphia National Parish: Its Sect-Like Characteristics" (unpub. seminar paper, University of Pennsylvania, 1968). 1 am indebted to Professor Varbero for making a copy of this paper available to me.

33. Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew (Garden City, New York, 1955); Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot (Cambridge, Mass., 1963); Francis X. Femminella, "The Impact of Italian Migration and American Catholicism," The American Catholic Sociological Review, 22 (Fall 1961), 233-241.

34. Nicholas John Russo, "The Religious Acculturation of the Italians in New York City" (unpub. doctoral dissertation, St. John's University, 1968); Russo summarized his findings in "Three Generations of Italians in New York City: Their Religious Acculturation," in The Italian

Experience in the United States, ed. by S. M. Tomasi and M. H. Engel (Staten Island, N.Y., 1970), pp. 195-209. Russo's research methodology is open to criticism on two grounds: 1) the questionnaires were distributed by priests in their parishes with resulting possibilities of bias in both sample and response; 2) the survey data do not distinguish between responses of males and females. Given the traditional differences in religious practices on the part of Italian men and women, the latter is a particularly serious limitation.

35. Harold J. Abramson, Ethnic Diversity in Catholic America (New York, 1973), pass.

36. Russo, "The Religious Acculturation of the Italians in New York City," p. 259; Alberto Giovannetti, L'America degli Italiani (Edizioni Paoline, 1975), p. 277. The Reverend Giovannetti concluded: "The Irish have won. The Italians of the third and fourth generations are today fully integrated in the modes of a Catholicism which is more or less molded after the Irish model."

37. Patricia Snyder Weibust, The Italians in Their Homeland in America in Connecticut, The Peoples of Connecticut Multicultural Ethnic Heritage Series Number Two (Storrs, Conn., 1976), p. 83. "In Connecticut, interviews with a number of Italians confirmed that, in their opinion, Italian Catholicism is still unique."

38. Reports on the feste can be followed in such publications as Fra Noi (Chicago) or The National Italian American News (New York).

39. Bianco, Rosetos, p. x.

40. Mathias, "The Italian-American Funeral," p. 44. Following the presentation of this lecture at St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia, I was approached by a well-dressed Italian-American gentleman who undid his collar and tie to show me a tiny gold horn and a crucifix on a chain. Gold amulets sell well in Philadelphia jewelry stores.

41. The Plain Dealer (Cleveland), Feb. 25, 1975.

42. Williams,South Italian Folkways, p. 158.

43. Mathias, "The Italian-American Funeral," p. 44; Bianco, Rosetos, pp. 118-120.

44. Russo, "The Religious Acculturation of the Italians in New York City," p. 263; Mathias, "The Italian-American Funeral," pp. 44-45..